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Kansas City Artist Dylan Mortimer Wants You To Activate His Halos, Or Not

Art and religion have been described as natural bedfellows – and yet, it’s been a complicated relationship. One Kansas City artist, Dylan Mortimer, explores religion in his artwork – including a series of halos, where anyone can choose to be illuminated.

Credit Courtesy of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art
Installation view of Mortimer's halos at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, Kan.

Stepping inside the halo

With close-cropped light brown hair and a wide smile, Dylan Mortimer stands inside one of his three large halos mounted on the walls of a small gallery upstairs at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art.

"You hear a little bit of click from it coming on," says Mortimer with a laugh, as he provides a demonstration. "This is me in the halo, activating it."

This halo, in gold, with lines radiating out from the center, is dotted with lights.

"It was off, I step in, the motion sensor senses me, it clicks on," he says. "And as you stand here, the lights start to twinkle, go on and off, and vary in kind of pattern and design and how they blink."

Halos, or rings of light, in the history of art and world religions, are something Mortimer has explored for a few years now - from three-dimensional sculptures to flat, circular artworks, like these, in blue, silver, and gold. In paintings, it’s often holy or sacred people depicted wearing a halo.

There's a "strangeness" to that, Mortimer says.

"Like, who earns a halo? How do you get a halo? Who are the ones who decide?," he asks. "Kind of the flatness of these, you know, when people stand into them, they look like they’re kind of in a painting."

Credit courtesy of the artist
Dylan Mortimer, 'Sacrifice May Be Required,' Digital Print, 2001

The "messiness" of art and religion

Mortimer grew up an evangelical Christian, the son of a pastor, and his transition to art school, attending the Kansas City Art Institute, was, at first, a bit of a culture shock. But he’s found more similarities than differences. Art, like religion, he says, can be messy – and if good questions are asked, people get uncomfortable.

"We all want something that is a little more edgy, sparks some debate, challenges us, makes us think in a different way than we had," says Mortimer. "That’s the point, to me, of both art and religion."

The two collided in Mortimer's artwork, at first, in signs, something he says he’s always been drawn to. During a semester in England, he began taking pictures of road signs and changing the words and phrases using Photoshop.

Credit courtesy of the artist
Dylan Mortimer, 'Prayer Booth,' aluminum, plastic, vinyl, 2003.

"Largely, it was signs warning you of where prayer might occur, where faith is encouraged or allowed," he says.

Taking a private faith public

Mortimer earned a BFA from KCAI, and graduated with an MFA in 2006 from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He returned to Kansas City, and now serves as the pastor of Rivercity Community Church in midtown. It shapes his artwork, just as he says being an artist informs his religious and spiritual actions and beliefs.

Over the last decade, Mortimer's continued to explore the visual pull of signs, using words and expressions. He's looked to hip hop culture where expressions of faith are often outright or literal, and created whimsical "bling"  jewelry. And his public art installations, called "Prayer Booths", have offered prayer in public, in nine locations to date, from Kansas City to New York City. It's a blue phone booth, with the word "Prayer" taking the place of "Telephone."

The public art, in particular, has been controversial – and he’s received hate mail and death threats. But he says he hopes viewers see that there's humor involved. 

"I kind of like to stir the pot (laughs) in that way," says Mortimer.  "I know that sometimes, in some people’s opinion, it’s been too far, too preachy, or too this or too that. But I have no problem with making those kinds of mistakes in public, and trying to navigate and learn from it, and see what comes of it."

Mortimer says you can simply walk by a "Prayer Booth," but it’s also there if you want to use it.  Just like the halos – it’s up to you to interact. As he puts it: "If you so desire, you can step in and illuminate."

Dylan Mortimer: Illuminate, runs through February 9, 2014, at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kan. 913-469-3000.

Mortimer's work is also included in Studios Inc:2013, a group exhibition featuring the resident artists of 2013, through February 21, 2014, at Studios Inc., 1701 Campbell Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-994-7134.

The Artists in Their Own Words series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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